The state Department of Transportation will finally hold a public hearing today on its ill-considered plan to virtually clear cut the trees in the I-26 median. The fact that the public is being heard only after a committee of the Berkeley-Charleston-Dorchester Council of Governments made its recommendation is just further evidence of how badly this planning process has been botched.
In December, the committee voted 4-2 to follow DOT’s plan to remove most of the trees in the median between Summerville and I-95. The committee heard a few people on the issue, but it could hardly be considered a representative gathering. Much of the attention was focused on the testimony of a man whose son had been killed on the highway. The grieving father had been invited to speak by one of the committee members.
There have been numerous tragedies on the highway, and the DOT views removing trees in the median, followed by the installation of a cable barrier in the center, as the most cost-effective solution.
But there are other ways to address the safety issues, including the installation of barriers — preferably guardrails — along the shoulders of the median. At least two COG committee members supported a course less extreme than removing virtually all the trees in the median for nearly 30 miles. That view recognizes the public’s support for retaining the scenic trees. It also acknowledges the fact that some areas of the highway are more dangerous than others, based on accident figures.
Clear-cutting the median is correctly viewed by critics as merely the first step to eventually widening the interstate to provide for increased traffic, particularly port-related trucking. But that widening project has yet to be even considered by the DOT, and there certainly is no funding for it. And there might be a better way to deal with increasing traffic short of filling the median with pavement and separating the oncoming lanes with a massive concrete barrier, as has been done elsewhere on I-26.
Though the DOT canceled its initial plans for a public hearing last July, there has been an ongoing public airing of the project in our letters to the editor. The issue has sustained the public interest for months, and while there are some writers who support the DOT position, the large majority has endorsed a less extreme solution — one that will provide for safety and for the preservation of the scenic roadway.
Indeed, some of our letter writers have cited the contribution of median trees to safety, particularly by reducing glare in the daytime and the blinding rays of oncoming headlights at night. Others have described the shortcomings of the highway’s design, such as the sharply sloping shoulders that could be better mitigated with guardrails to keep cars from hurtling off I-26.
Many letter writers (including on this page) have observed the excessive speed exhibited by many, if not most, motorists on the highway. And they have questioned the apparent lack of enforcement by the highway patrol.
Others who travel the interstate regularly note the high incidence of distracted drivers who are texting and talking on cell phones as they roar down the roadway.
Virtually all who support an alternative solution stress the importance of maintaining the scenic aspects of the main corridor leading into the Lowcountry, one of the most beautiful areas of the nation. And a number of those writers have described DOT’s efforts to remove the trees as better suited to the expressways of the heavily populated Northeast. Not surprisingly, at least a few of those writers speak from experience as transplants to the Lowcountry.
One writer noted incisively that there is hardly a comprehensive list of options before the COG.
Residents should take the opportunity to speak to the full range of alternatives today at the DOT hearing scheduled from 5 to 7 p.m. at Summerville High School.
They should remember that local consideration of the project is occurring only because the Legislature, at the insistence of Senate Transportation Committee chairman Larry Grooms, R-Berkeley, demanded that the DOT do so.
Today’s hearing will be one of the most important meetings in the process of coming up with a better plan. The DOT is expected to take a full hour for its presentation on the project, leaving only an hour to hear the public. If the demand is there, the DOT should accommodate it, even if the meeting goes beyond the allotted time.
Public opinion is clearly against this plan, but the public will have to make clear where it stands on the issue, given the support for the project among the powers that be. Inexplicably, that includes a number of local elected officials who have bought into the DOT’s extreme solution, instead of a measured response that will take into account both safety and scenic values.
If a better solution costs more money, then the DOT should be expected to provide it. Funding for the current DOT-recommended project would come from the federal government.
It’s not too much to insist that the DOT come up with a solution less objectionable than the one it has proposed.
The public should demand it, and should make themselves heard emphatically today.